Two thousand people affected in a 5 km radius in a densely populated city, hundreds in hospital and 11 dead — the gas leak in Visakhapatnam revives dark memories of Bhopal in 1984, when the Union Carbide plant there caused one of the biggest industrial disasters ever.
By all accounts, recurring instances of human oversight(mistake) and callousness (insensitive and cruel disregard) appear to have precipitated(caused) the disaster at the LG Polymers India unit.
EXCEEDING THE CAPACITY:
The original owners of the plant, McDowell & Co, had sold it when the fast-developing city of Visakhapatnam drew uncomfortably close to it.
It would have been wise to relocate (shift to other place) since the hazardous(harmful) feedstock of styrene was in use, but LG took it over in 1997 and continued production, admitting last year that it had exceeded the capacity permitted by its environmental clearance.
It had then sought permission for expansion from the state authorities, though the central ministry of environment and forests is the competent(legitimate) authority. The ministry later dropped the matter in the belief that the company had lost interest.
FAILURE TO SECURE ENVIRONMENTAL CLEARANCE:
This series of unfortunate events may have laid the ground for the accident on May 7 — it is being said that the leak occurred because the styrene had been stored for a long time, due to the lockdown.
A failure to check hazardous chemicals and storage vessels is no less mystifying(confusing) than the failure to secure environmental clearance before restarting operations — the role and responsibility of the company, the state administration and the Union ministry must be probed(questioned) and accountability(responsibility) must be enforced.
The managers of the company should have known that starting a production line which has lain dormant (idle) for a long period is not a trivial(unimportant) process. Before throwing the switch, they should have run through the entire safety drill. A flurry(series) of official activity has followed the gas leak.
The National Green Tribunal has ordered LG Polymers India to pay interim damages of Rs 50 crore and issued notices to the company, the Central Pollution Control Board, the state and the Centre.
The police have registered a case of culpable homicide (an act which has resulted in a person's death but is held not to amount to murder) and causing grievous(serious) hurt against the management, under the Indian Penal Code.
The YS Jaganmohan Reddy government has set up a five-member team to probe the incident, and the Union ministry of chemicals and fertilisers has advised chemical plants to reopen with caution.
Now, the probe report should be called in as soon as possible, action must be taken against the guilty and authorities issuing environmental clearances must identify any other defaulters and prevent them from restarting.
Aurangabad incident must draw attention to vulnerability of migrant workers in crisis, need to address it urgently.
The public health challenge of confronting(fighting) the novel coronavirus has triggered(led to) a terrible humanitarian crisis in the country.
Amongst the defining images of the lockdown imposed to contain the spread of the virus are those of migrant workers walking back home on the country’s highways, carrying their children, and at times elderly family members, on their shoulders and in their arms. There have been reports of many workers collapsing(falling) by the wayside, weakened by hunger and fatigue(exhaust).
Sixteen more names were added on Friday to the lengthening toll — of migrants run over by a freight train (goods train) in Aurangabad, Maharashtra, after they, in exhaustion(tired), fell asleep on the tracks, on the way to their homes.
The livelihoods of these workers had dried up after the iron factory in Jalna, which employed them, had pulled down its shutters(closed) because of the lockdown. The workers were trekking to Bhusawal, about 150-km away, to catch a Shramik Special train to return to their homes in Madhya Pradesh.
WHEELS OF THE COUNTRY’S ECONOMY:
There is little doubt that the migrant workers are essential and indispensable(essential) for the wheels of the country’s economy to turn. They help run factories, build roads and houses, harvest crops, collect garbage and pull rickshaws.
But it’s a measure of their invisibility that there is very little official data on their exact numbers — according to the Economic Survey, 2017, nine million people migrate across states every year, but other studies suggest that this could be a conservative estimate.
There is a growing body of literature on the multiple deprivations(damaging lack of material benefits considered to be basic necessities) and injustices they must bear.
According to the Periodic Labour Force Survey (PLFS) of 2017-18, for instance, more than 70 per cent of the workers in the non-agricultural sector with a regular salary — most of them migrants — didn’t have a written job contract, about 55 per cent were not eligible for paid leave and, 50 per cent did not have any social security benefits.
Any breakdown of economic activity, such as that caused by the pandemic, leaves these workers to fend(protect) for themselves.
The public health challenge posed by the novel coronavirus has led to some meaningful conversations on improving the country’s healthcare facilities. It should also occasion discussions on putting in place social security nets for the migrant workers.
After the pandemic, these workers cannot go back to the ill-lit shadows of the economy that they have been forced to occupy for so long.
(The social safety net (SSN) consists of non-contributory assistance existing to improve lives of vulnerable families and individuals experiencing poverty and destitution. Examples of SSNs are non-contributory social pensions, in-kind and food transfers, conditional and unconditional cash transfers, fee waivers, public works, and school feeding programs)
Amidst rightful jubilation(celebration) over the execution of a colossal(huge) nationwide lockdown, the plight(suffering) of hapless migrants has raised an important, long dormant(idle) issue.
Their predicament(difficult & unpleasant situation) has triggered a volley(series) of questions — about why the magnitude(great size or extent of something) of the migrant exodus(mass departure of people) was not anticipated(understood), leading to a crisis situation.
Anguish(pain) over their hunger, and unresponsiveness to their natural urge to return home, bereft(cut off from) of daily earnings, has received extensive media coverage.
DIFFERENCE BETWEEN SLUM DWELLERS AND MIGRANTS:
The fact that half the population of a megapolis like Mumbai or Delhi lives in slums and shanties is well known. All governments make attempts to improve their lives. Within a couple of days of the COVID lockdown, Delhi slum-dwellers received free rations to last six weeks, women got money and pensioners saw a doubling of their deposits. The needy got hot meals twice a day within 48 hours of the lockdown and, ever since, 2 million people (the population of the city of Patna) are being fed daily.
Then why do we see hundreds of migrants on television screens complaining about staying hungry? Why did the Supreme Court have to advise one ration card for all during the lockdown? Is there a difference between slum dwellers and migrants? Seasonal or permanent? Settled or stranded?
To understand this, one has to see the constitutional provisions and policies governing the political economy. The latter(political economy) endure(undergo) migrants for economic reasons without amalgamating(involving) them under the state’s food safety nets.
CONSTITUTIONAL PROVISIONS AND POLICIES:
According to the Constitution, urban development is the responsibility of municipal governments and the management of migration is one facet(aspect) of that. While the Centre can give directions, the states have the powers to legislate(make law) on urban matters.
Of course, like much else, policies are determined by where the political advantage lies. This largely explains the huge disparities( great differences) that continue to exist in levels of socio-economic development.
In administering welfare schemes, migrants are not equated with state residents, be it the regulation of minimum wages, housing, and political participation. A World Bank study has referred to “migrant unfriendly policies” that prevail throughout the country.
Every state maintains reservation in government jobs and higher education, targets foodgrain distribution and provides social welfare essentially for the state’s own residents. Nurturing migrants is considered suicidal as it upsets the local residents who assert first claim on benefits, the Marathi Manoos syndrome being a case in point.
Political parties find it difficult and unproductive to promote migrants with no roots as voter constituencies.
APATHY FOR MIGRANTS:
While migrants can access hospitals and receive treatment, this has never extended to habitation. On first arrival new migrants just try and get enough room to sleep. Eventually, after years, they might negotiate an address to show continuity of stay, which alone can enable them to get an election card and a ration card.
For decades, they have travelled to the cities — a thousand migrants disembark(get off) just at Old Delhi railway station every day. Initially, they depend on mama-chacha networks while scouting(searching) for work. After years, they fetch(get) the family. Seasonal workers are different, as they often come as a family. Many were left stranded(no support) after the lockdown.
Successive chief ministers have treated migrants as “not our problem”. Most migrants would be having ration cards in their home states but these are not transferable. Only when elections are on the horizon are they facilitated in getting a local Pehchan Patra (election card) and a ration card. But until those documents are acquired (or procured), they remain outside the welfare net.
The magnitude of inter-state migration in India was reported to be close to 9 million annually between 2011 and 2016, while Census 2011 pegged inter- and intra-state movement at close to 140 million then. Some estimates pitch migrants to be at least 10 per cent of the labour force, contributing substantially to the GDP.
Since the Constitution grants citizens with the right to reside and settle anywhere in the country, no permissions are required to move or stay anywhere — mostly on public land with the approval of several political and public authorities.
Although the state is enabled to make laws imposing reasonable restrictions in public interest, they have shied away(ignored) from regulating migrant settlement. Indispensable(essential) as they are, migrants are considered unsupportable in normal times.
During the COVID pandemic, the media has highlighted a situation no welfare state can afford to turn away from much longer. Turning a Nelson’s eye(blind) to the arrival of migrants and letting them rough it out on their own can contribute to unmanageable health hazards putting entire populations at risk.
Permitting the vicious cycle of slums and squalor(dirt) has shown how infection can permeate(spread) into dense populations. If COVID has not taught this lesson, nothing will. The states must now start to register every migrant. Only regular head counts will enable a correct measure of the entitlements.
But registration is only the first step. Finding state resources for them, unless billed to projects hiring migrants, will be mind-blowing(overwhelmingly impressive). Registration will be a huge challenge. Unless the processes are simple, transparent and low cost, they can become exclusionary and exploitative.
The Aadhaar card could be used to kick-start migrant registration. The states with greater pull factors will need to take a call on habitation and welfare — if not spurred(rushed) by humanitarianism, then at least by the obligation to safeguard the health of their residents.